Sunday, November 3, 2013

France unites against François Hollande

Even the Left is turning hostile to the president, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
President breaks records of unpopularity as even the French Left turns hostile
Francois Hollande has built his career on being a canny political manoeuvrer Photo: Reuters
As he stood at a military airport last Wednesday to greet four French hostages released by al-Qaeda militants in Niger, François Hollande could have been forgiven for thinking his disastrous run of bad news in the past months might finally be coming to an end. 

Having announced an assortment of taxes the previous week, Mr Hollande suspended most of them over the weekend after widespread popular protests. He had managed to unite unlikely bedfellows, more often at loggerheads against one another, in the fiercest demonstrations seen in Brittany in a decade.

A proposed green tax on lorry fuel that would raise transport costs by 4 per cent had brought out farmers and supermarket owners as well as labourers and trade unionists, brandishing the black and white Breton flag as a symbol of their outrage against the cluelessness of Parisian technocrats, of whom Mr Hollande is a central member. This was the face of a future French Tea Party, a political development that seems increasingly likely.

Mr Hollande also had to “suspend” — a word that fills the French with unease, as it promises a stealthy return of the same measures whenever the fracas dies down — a 15.5 per cent retroactive tax on savings schemes that seemed tailor-made to infuriated his most natural voters.

A Parisian barrister, himself not a Hollande voter, told me that his Portuguese-born cleaning lady, a single mother of five children, had sworn never again to cast her ballot for the president, as she did last year. “You work hard all your life, you do what’s right, and then they come after the little bit you’ve managed to put aside for your retirement age?” she said. “What kind of a Left-wing government is that?”

Once again, the government’s “method”, if it can be called that, seemed to be to first float the idea of a new tax for a few days, then back down if the outcry became too loud. “It’s probably the worst way you can run a fiscal policy,” says Erwan Le Noan, a competition lawyer and international consultant. “The amateurism and uncertainty alone mean businesses have no visibility, and will defer investment — and hires — as long as they possibly can.”
An insider suggests that the ministry of finance mandarins at the Treasury and budget departments, held in check by their previous bosses, have been trying out all their pet tax plans, even the most outlandish, on Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, and Bernard Cazeneuve, the budget minister. “Moscovici believes the tax burden is as high as it can go, but he has little authority,” says the insider. “Cazeneuve, his junior, is a hard-working realist, but he suffers from having been an exemplary European affairs minister. He is convinced that France must abide by her European Treaty obligations, which means reducing the deficit. Since the spending ministries do not really want to make hard cuts, the only way — or so he thinks — is through more taxes.” The Laffer curve theory (too much tax kills tax revenue) does not seem to have made it to Bercy, the massive brutalist fortress built 20 years go to accommodate the finance ministry’s plethoric troops.

An unchecked French civil servant can think up some pretty outlandish tax ideas. The French property market is under threat of a new rent control law. This is the pet project of Cécile Duflot, the housing minister and a canny Green ideologue who believes, against all concrete evidence to the contrary, that it will make rents more affordable. Paris estate agents reply that this, alongside the heap of protective regulations skewed towards renters, has already convinced many landlords to just sell and get out, even though the law has not yet been passed.

This is, however, small beer next to an earlier proposal, last June, by the Conseil d’Analyse Économique, the prime minister’s office’s forward planning think tank, advising the creation of a “virtual rent” that all property owners would pay, in order to restore more equality between households burdened with rent and the other, rent-free ones. After the CAE report came out, the subsequent fury caused the virtual rent proposal to be shelved, “but that shows you how they think”, says Mr Le Noan. “People remember this. They have no trust at all in this government.”

The beginning of the week saw Mr Hollande’s ratings plunge even lower than before, breaking records of unpopularity. Two separate polls have given him the worst ratings of any French president. Their breakdown shows, perhaps predictably, implacable, near-total hostility (93 per cent for one, 97 per cent for the other) on the Right; but opinions on the Left and within his own Socialist party are solidly negative too. He is perceived as “lacking courage”, “indecisive”, “incompetent”, “weak”, even “incoherent”.

To the French who elected him in May last year, Mr Hollande controls nothing and has no authority anywhere. Not in his own home, not in his party, not in his Cabinet, not in the country, and not — after Barack Obama eventually spurned his offer of military help in Syria — in the world.

The one bright spot in which he received across-the-board support was the French intervention in Mali, back in January. In two weeks, French troops, called by the Malian president Dioncounda Traoré to help the country fight an Islamist invasion in the north, pushed back the rebels, liberated Timbuktu and stabilised a country whose fall to al-Qaeda affiliates would have been a disaster for several French allies, from Algeria to Sudan. This was perhaps the model of a foreign expedition done well: experienced troops knowing the region, limited and clear aims, regional and local support. Mr Hollande, quite rightly, saw his popularity edge back up. Visiting Bamako, the Malian capital, in early February, basking in popular adulation, he told an enthusiastic rally that this was “the most beautiful day of his political career”.

And one he’s seemingly tried to replicate ever since — it’s probably the reason why he was so gung-ho on a Syrian intervention, even though French intelligence is perfectly aware of the complexity in which the Syrian rebellion is mired. It was therefore difficult not to wonder at the timeliness, in political terms, of the four hostages’ liberation. Questions about a ransom were raised immediately. Mr Hollande denied any payment had been made.

For one moment, it seemed as if Mr Hollande’s luck might turn: Marine Le Pen commented on television on the look of the head-covered and bearded hostages, implying they might have been “Islamicised” in captivity. It was tactless and crass — a boon, you might think, to the mainstream political class, who duly grabbed the ball and ran with it in their hurry to re-demonise the Front National leader.

Their moment of good, clean fun lasted only for a couple of hours. That very afternoon, Le Monde came out with an authoritative piece of reporting laying out the different stages of the negotiations that succeeded in getting the hostages back, complete with payment of €20 million (£16.9 million) to the kidnappers and Malian intermediaries. Intelligence experts in Paris agree that the article was completely accurate, “with great chunks taken under dictation, I should say”, one jokes.

They explain that Mr Hollande took the negotiations off the hands of the French intelligence service, DGSE, to give them to a series of local intermediaries and presidency advisers, exactly the same type of associates that Mr Hollande, in opposition, criticised Nicolas Sarkozy for using. The implication is that DGSE leaked the entire story to Le Monde, furious both at this and because the ransom, of which they disapprove, seems to have been paid out of their own budget.

You can get away, in French politics, with lying, or looking extremely likely to have lied, to the nation. Mr Hollande’s job is as safe as the Fifth Republic constitution makes it, which is very safe indeed. But as for the hoped-for reprieve in the polls? That is not happening.

How long can this last? Normally, until the next presidential and general elections, which are in 2017. There are no provisions for getting rid of the president, unless he resigns or calls for an early general election, which will not happen. Nationwide municipal elections will take place in March, and European Parliament elections are scheduled for May. The municipal elections, and local deals for the second round, explain why Mr Hollande has been pandering so much to the Greens and the Left of his party. Voting in the European elections, on the other hand, is full proportional representation, which makes them, in effect, a life-size poll.

Ms Le Pen’s party is expected to poll somewhere between 25 per cent and 30 per cent, and, as an MEP herself, she has already been busy making European alliances for the day after. Her platform, in many ways, is indistinguishable from that of the hard-Left: protectionist, anti-euro, anti-capitalist, pro-national regulations, supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. She is hoping to steal from Mr Hollande many of the disenchanted voters on his Left.

Mr Hollande may not be a very successful president, but he has built his career on being a canny political manoeuvrer and, like a rabbit in a Citroën’s headlights, he understands this, without being able to change his essential nature. He is currently pondering a Cabinet reshuffle — from all accounts unenthusiastically, as it means a complete rebalancing of his majority such as it is, for less than game-changing results. He is therefore likely to keep trudging on, earning himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records in the chapter on unloved political leaders.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why the hostile reactions to my Telegraph article highlight France's deep divisions

Left-wing commentators are wrong to criticise my article in the Telegraph about the exodus of French entrepreneurial talent, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

Criticised: Anne-Elisabeth Moutet was told: 'Stories like yours are nothing but a massive swindle’ Photo: Lucas Schifres

Since last week, when my Sunday Telegraph report outraged France (“British propaganda!” was a recurring theme) by suggesting that my demoralised compatriots were leaving in droves, fleeing an economy overburdened by regulations and levies, François Hollande’s government has added three new taxes to the 84 that had been created in the past two years.

Not only will capital gains on a series of popular savings plans be now subject to a 15.5 per cent flat tax, but also the measure is retroactive all the way to 1997 – coincidentally (perhaps) the last time France elected a Socialist government before this one.

It would be unfair to say that the irony went unremarked. The dozens of reactions I heard – as well as the thousands of internet comments and Twitter and Facebook shares of my story – mirrored the state of deep division in which France finds itself.

Entrepreneurs are “really hunted away from the country”, wrote one correspondent, and specifically targeted by “many stupid decisions. One example: I created a business seven years ago; if I sell it now, I will have to pay 60 per cent of the value I’ve created. Unfair and discouraging.”

Another correspondent wrote: “Would not change a word: we are now in decline, and may never be able to regain the place of fourth-largest economy in the world.”
“The people who really drive the French economy and keep the country afloat are those in managerial roles or the professions, who know little or no job security or social protection, working in those highly competitive parts of the economy comparable to Britain or the United States,” said another commenter. “But they are tiring of supporting the unproductive masses.”

Last week, the ministry of finance, prompted by opposition MPs, released official emigration figures for 2011 (they assure you nothing more recent is available) showing that departures had doubled from the previous year to nearly 40,000. Professor Jacques Régniez of the Sorbonne, himself a statistician, predicts that these should have climbed to 60,000 by the time we get this year’s figures.

In the November-December issue of the foreign-policy journal The National Interest, the US economist Milton Ezrati published a damning, comprehensive study of the downfall of the French economy. “Whereas 10 years ago it rivalled Germany’s,” he wrote, “today, France produces only half the value added. France’s share of global exports has fallen from 7 per cent in 1999 to only 3 per cent today. During this time, its share of the eurozone’s exports has fallen from 17 per cent to merely 12 per cent.” France, Ezrati explains, is now outperformed even by Italy.

Like others, Ezrati blamed over-regulation: there are now so many complex and protective labour laws, the Code du travail (labour code) exceeds 3,200 pages. He also quoted a recent authoritative OECD study that identified “French failings in almost every major category: economic regulation, product regulation, impositions by local policies, state control of the details of business operations and barriers to entrepreneurship”.

The only area in which France didn’t blatantly underperform was, unsurprisingly, red tape: French bureaucracy barely reaches the OECD efficiency median.

You would think something of this would filter up to Hollande in his Elysée bunker – he might disagree on the diagnosis, yet worry on the souring of the public mood. You would be wrong: “Perception is reality”, the mantra of spin doctors around the Western world, leaves the President cold. Increasingly, his entourage reports that Hollande, despite hiring a communications team headed by a popular former France 2 prime-time news presenter, Claude Sérillon, believes he knows best how to speak to the French. “This may have worked for de Gaulle,” says Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, a political communications expert. “Not for Hollande.”

The beleaguered president, whose unpopularity figures scale new heights seemingly every week, still enjoys a vocal, if ever-diminishing, constituency, who, when they do oppose Hollande, reproach him for not being tougher on “the rich”.

Many of these work in the media, and as I defended my story on various radio and TV panels all week, I encountered an interesting assortment of them. (I have become something of a rent-a-reactionary in the French media, where a “balanced” panel means three Left-wingers et moi.)

There was the France Inter (think Radio 4) hour-long programme in which Sibylle Vincendon, a senior editor of the newspaper Libération, called all critics of the economic and political situation “grumpies”. (She has a book out on this theme, Pour en finir avec les grincheux. By the third page of the introduction, the despicable “Anglo-Saxons” and their “free-trade” model have been introduced. Vincendon believes that anyone, especially an economist forecasting France’s decline, is evidencing a deep schadenfreude and dark motives. The French, she says, need to “share more, not less”.)
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet's reply to her critics in Sunday's Telegraph

There was the debate on Arte, the French-German cultural public channel, in which the right (by which I mean Left) kind of economist, Prof Benjamin Coriat, explained that instead of the 75 per cent supertax hitting “only” a few privileged citizens, national income tax should be raised well above the current 45 per cent marginal rate, so that “everyone will pay”. Prof Coriat is shocked that some people dare to oppose new taxes. “They’ll justify anything not to cough up!” he thundered. He deplores the kind of movements now emerging, such as Les Pigeons (a group of young entrepreneurs who oppose over-taxation of start-ups), and the fact that some politicians listen to these “bad citizens”.

Elsewhere, I was told that French emigration to Britain was “a myth”, the figures “too low to even consider”. In an online chat, I was asked why I wrote in English, implying that I was some sort of traitor. (“Because it’s more fun?” didn’t seem to cut it as an answer.)
Many went on the attack: “Stories like yours are nothing but a massive swindle,” a Le Monde Diplomatique editor told me. “For people leaving France, how many come back after experiencing the lack of public services in Britain, the inefficient Tube, the expensive, slow and badly maintained trains, the threadbare NHS? It’s France that is bearing up best in the crisis, not Britain: why do you think the richer of the English come to French doctors and hospitals for proper treatment when they’re ill? Britain has no industrial base to speak of: it only exists because of tax-rate dumping, the City of London, and those nice, honest financiers operating there. Britain is a terrible place to live except for the super-rich.”

France has remained in a thrall to Marxism to a degree that is rarely matched elsewhere in Europe. While Germany, Italy and, in Britain, New Labour, swore off it, Hollande’s Socialist Party never officially renounced it, in good part not to offend its Leftist frenemies, of which there are many, who still Believe.

In addition to the rump of its once-powerful Communist Party, France has three Trotskyite mini-parties, a Green nebula, and one upstart radicalised splinter from the Socialists, led by a charismatic philosophy teacher, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran for president against Hollande in the first 2012 round, and scored a very respectable 11 per cent, coming fourth behind Hollande, Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen.

Because, for years, any Socialist candidate has needed all of the extreme Left votes to win, the language of economic realism has never gained traction on the Left in France. In private, the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, will describe himself as a social democrat. Ask him to repeat it on the record and you are faced with a stony glare, lest you create a political crisis for him and his boss. As a result, the political tone on the Left has remained frozen in a kind of Seventies radical aspic, a hoary kind of time travel in which every capitalist, every entrepreneur, every high-net-worth individual is guilty of starving the downtrodden masses.

“I left because I was tired of being considered little better than a criminal,” says a French banker who is now happily ensconced in a Soho loft with his family. “At a pinch, I could have paid the silly taxes; but it was the constant sniping, the feeling that I had to apologise for everything I achieved, the jealousy, the unremitting gloom, the guilt heaped upon you at every turn; and the idea that my children would have to grow up in a country where, at best, they could hope to become top civil servants, and duplicate the system with no deviation from the norm.

“This president has no idea that there is a wide world outside France; he has hardly travelled abroad; he speaks no other language; and he has no curiosity. Eventually, you get tired of waiting for our rulers to wake up.”

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Down and out: the French flee a nation in despair

The failing economy and harsh taxes of François Hollande's beleaguered nation are sending thousands packing - to Britain's friendlier shores, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Le brain drain: high-net-worth French families are heading to the UK
By 2014, France's public expenditure will become the world's highest, at 57 per cent of GDP Photo: Howard McWilliam
A poll on the front page of last Tuesday’s Le Monde, that bible of the French Left-leaning Establishment (think a simultaneously boring and hectoring Guardian), translated into stark figures the winter of François Hollande’s discontent.

More than 70 per cent of the French feel taxes are “excessive”, and 80 per cent believe the president’s economic policy is “misguided” and “inefficient”. This goes far beyond the tax exiles such as Gérard Depardieu, members of the Peugeot family or Chanel’s owners. 

Worse, after decades of living in one of the most redistributive systems in western Europe, 54 per cent of the French believe that taxes – of which there have been 84 new ones in the past two years, rising from 42 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 46.3 per cent this year – now widen social inequalities instead of reducing them.

This is a noteworthy departure, in a country where the much-vaunted value of “equality” has historically been tinged with envy and resentment of the more fortunate. Less than two years ago, the most toxic accusation levied at Nicolas Sarkozy was of being “le président des riches”, favouring his yacht-sailing CEO buddies with tax breaks and sweet deals. By contrast, Hollande, the bling-free candidate, was elected on a platform of increasing state spending by promising to create 60,000 teachers’ jobs, as well as 150,000 subsidised entry-level public-service jobs for the long-time unemployed and the young – without providing for significant savings elsewhere.

By 2014, France’s public expenditure will overtake Denmark’s to become the world’s highest: 57 per cent of GDP. In effect, just to keep in the same place, like a hamster on a wheel, and ensure that the European Central Bank in Frankfurt isn’t too unhappy with us, Hollande now needs cash. Technocrats, MPs and ministers have been instructed to find every euro they can rake in – in deferred benefits, cancelled tax credits, extra levies. As they ignore the notion of making some serious cuts (mooted at regular intervals by the IMF, the OECD and even France’s own Cour des Comptes), the result can be messy.

On the one hand, the lacklustre economy and finance minister Pierre Moscovici recently admitted that he “understood” the French’s “exasperation” with their heavy tax burden. This earned him a sharp rap on the fingers from the president and his beleaguered PM, Jean-Marc Ayrault. On the other, new taxes keep being announced, in chaotic fashion, nearly every week. “Announced” doesn’t mean “implemented”: the Hollande crowd have developed a unique Wile E Coyote-style of leaks, technical glitches, last-minute tweaks and horse-market bargaining whereby almost nobody knows, at any given time, who will be targeted by the taxman, and how. Unsurprisingly, this is liked by no one except us reptiles of the press, eager to report on the longest series of own goals in the history of government communications.

Take last year’s famous 75 per cent supertax, on individuals earning over one million euros a month. This has still not been implemented. First, it got struck down by France’s Constitutional Council on a technicality. Leaks suggested the rate would fall to 66 per cent. They were confirmed, then denied. Hollande eventually vowed that the tax would be paid by the targeted individuals’ employers, for daring to offer such “obscenely” high salaries. This has just been approved by the National Assembly, and must still pass the Senate. So far, it is only supposed to apply to 2013 and 2014 income, but no one knows if the bill will be prolonged, killed or transformed.

What we do know is that this non-existent (so far) tax has been the clincher that sent hundreds, possibly thousands of French citizens abroad: not just “the rich”, whom Hollande, during his victorious campaign, said he personally “disliked”, and who now are pushing up house prices in South Kensington and fighting bitterly over the Lycée Charles de Gaulle’s 1,200 new places; but also the ambitious young, who feel that their own country will turn on them the minute they achieve any measure of personal success.

In the heart of Paris’s Right Bank, where I live, only foreigners seem to buy flats, at prices entirely disconnected from reality. In my street, I have spotted three new Maseratis. Even before seeing their Qatari plates, I knew they couldn’t belong to local owners: they’re an ostentatious admission of wealth no one wants to make in Hollande’s France. (A luxury car is one of the “outward signs of wealth” your tax inspector has been specifically trained to query. The lesson has been learnt: last year, Rolls-Royce sold no cars in France.) On the Left Bank, elegant Americans buy bijoux apartments on place de Furstenberg, at 30,000 euros per square metre, and venture into the fine Café de Flore for elevenses.

“It’s not only that people don’t like to be treated like criminals just because they’re successful,” says a French banker friend who has recently moved to London. “But this uncertainty in every aspect of the tax system means it is impossible to do business: you don’t know what your future costs are, or your customer’s. You can’t buy, you can’t sell, you can’t hire, you can’t fire.”

While I’m still happy in Paris, I envy him his surroundings, the vibrancy of London, the feeling that anything is possible, the sense of fun I remember from the years I lived there in the Eighties and Nineties, and that I gladly find again every time I zoom in on the Eurostar. Paris, my city of birth, is an elegant museum – where any new idea, in any context, seems to be fated to be shot down by a combination of old, structural conformism and blasé disenchantment.

Today, one out of four French university graduates wants to emigrate, “and this rises to 80 per cent or 90 per cent in the case of marketable degrees”, says economics professor Jacques Régniez, who teaches at both the Sorbonne and the University of New York in Prague. “In one of my finance seminars, every single French student intends to go abroad.”

“The French workforce is now two-speed,” explains a headhunter who shuttles between Paris and London. “Among the young, perhaps a third speak English, are willing to relocate, and want to work. For one thing, their dream employers are the more prosperous of the large French multinationals, almost all those in the CAC40 index, who make over half of their profits abroad, sometimes over 90 per cent – companies like, say, L’Oréal, Schneider or Danone. This is why French universities have shocked the Académie française and now teach many courses in English.

“But I’ve also seen determined young people take jobs in places like Vietnam, with local contracts and nothing like the level of protection afforded by French labour law, in order to gain a proper first experience of business in a competitive environment. And then you have a large group whose ambition is simply to stay outside the economy.”

This means a trade-off with which anyone in France is familiar: young people, and many of their parents, dream of getting any kind of state or local administration post, usually badly paid, very often frustrating, but which ensures complete job security, unrelated to the economic situation, the market, or their own performance.

More than a quarter of the French workforce is employed by some public body or other: schools, hospitals, local and regional councils, the police, the civil service proper – or those new subsidised public-service jobs the Hollande government is so keen on.

While the young French generations were aspiring to cocoon themselves away from the realities of the world, our nearest neighbours were following the opposite trend. In 2000, under a socialist chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, German businesses paid an astonishing 51.6 per cent company tax – largely to pay for the previous decade’s reunification. Today, this is down to 29.8 per cent, when the French equivalent, the highest in Europe, is 38 per cent. By 2003, Schroeder had embarked on a widespread reform programme, lowering taxes and drastically slashing benefits, curtailing the influence of the unions, and eventually reducing German unemployment from 10 per cent to 7 per cent (it’s 11 per cent in France).

There are many reasons why this wouldn’t work in France, not least because the French Socialists happen to have noticed that Schroeder and his party reformed themselves out of a job. Another is that French unions represent very little: less than 8 per cent of the French workforce overall is unionised, a figure that falls to between 3 per cent and 5 per cent in the private sector. Unions do, however, play a mandated part in a number of negotiation and welfare net structures, the unemployment benefits system, retraining schemes and the national health and pensions co-administration. This, not members’ contributions, keeps them afloat. The law also provides for legal labour dispute fines to be paid to the unions.

French unions see as their main goal the preservation of the status quo: from overprotective labour laws that make it so hard to fire employees that French bosses will do almost anything to avoid hiring new staff (who cost them a whopping 70 per cent in payroll taxes), to perpetuating antiquated regulations dating back to Vichy France, banning Sunday trading and evening shifts.

Recent union legal actions have forced businesses to close on evenings and Sundays, from the cosmetics chain Sephora – where employees protested that they wanted to keep working their late hours – to the British-owned DIY chain Castorama, which belongs to Kingfisher: no wonder Ian Cheshire, Kingfisher’s chief executive, complained last Friday that this harmed the French economy as well as his stores. “The president has said that recovery is in sight: I’m not sure where he’s looking at the moment. The mood is improving in the UK, not in France.”

It wasn’t fated to happen. “By 2000,” says Jacques Régniez, “French multinationals had achieved a very high level of competitiveness. Having committed to the strong franc, in the run-up to the euro they were forced to become lean and efficient. They rationalised production, and French workers became some of the most productive in the world.” French utilities, insurers, aerospace makers and luxury-goods conglomerates were up there with the best. If you wanted the best nuclear plant, crocodile handbag, commercial aircraft, high-speed train, you bought French.

What went wrong, says Régniez, was a bill passed by the then socialist Lionel Jospin government reducing the working week to 35 hours. “Where our competitors, especially the Germans, saw the need to keep prices and costs down, France spent money she couldn’t afford.” The entire system, he explains, tilted fatally to the side of salary hikes, perks and a lowering of retirement age, in the face of every observable demographic trend. Investment slowed down in the private sector, and almost stopped in the public one. “Each year, France has missed out on four GDP points of capital investment. By now, after a decade-and-a-half, we are not only lagging behind, it’s not certain we can make up for it. It would cost a 4.5 per cent hike in VAT, and other significant hikes in payroll taxes. That, quite simply, is not realistic.”

Even France’s vaunted infrastructures – those trains, roads, telecoms cables, the once ultra-performing electrical grid, the nuclear plants, the delayed 4G network – have taken a severe hit.

A French businessman who moved to London last year and asked not to be quoted by name, “because my tax audit would be even more retaliatory than what I’m currently being subjected to”, compares July’s Brétigny train crash, France’s worst rail disaster in a quarter of a century that killed six and injured 100, to the Paddington and Potters Bar derailments. “The rolling stock is ageing, the tracks are in a constant state of disrepair, even the TGVs now have regular delays because of catenary failure.”

Despite disputing allegations of negligence, SNCF have said they will reinforce maintenance “without waiting for the conclusions of the inquiry”. Criticisms have also been made that vast sums went on salaries, benefits and pensions.

But most analysts share the blame between Left- and Right-wing French governments in the past two decades. An investment banker, who has also moved to London recently, dates the wrong choices from the first Jacques Chirac presidency, in 1995. Chirac and his PM Alain Juppé, both Gaullists, decided to reform the huge French public sector’s pension system, to align civil servants’ pay-as-you-go pensions, which were (and still are) much more favourable, with those of the private sector.

There followed three weeks of hard strikes, shutting down the entire country, from schools to public transport to utilities and the post office. Juppé was ready to stick it out, but Chirac blinked. The reform was shelved, and for the next 12 years he stayed in office, Chirac never, ever tried to clash with vested interests again.

Sarkozy had great plans after his 2007 election. He believed in business, and good pay for hard work, and was devastatingly frank about it. It might – perhaps – have passed in prosperous times: one year on, the financial crisis hit, and his brusque style and love of bling clashed with both the times and age-old French preferences. (France is an old Catholic country that, for over a century, was influenced by unapologetic Marxism. It is atavistically hostile to money.) The reforms Sarko managed to pass, much milder than necessary, still ensured his unpopularity. He bet on French realism, and lost.

Realism – actual, real-life realism – is not an accusation you can levy at Hollande. Like Chirac – who supported him both because of a deep personal dislike for Sarkozy, and because they are in many ways very similar – France’s unlikely seventh president of the Fifth Republic is a professional politician, a graduate of the top government school ENA, and has never held a job in the private sector. Both Chirac and Hollande come from Corrèze, in central France, a region that has regularly provided French politics with a certain type of wily opportunist. Both appear easy-going and friendly, and both are complete cynics, with very little in the way of ideals, and an infinite capacity to scheme in order to stay in power.

Chirac, like Hollande, knew how to cultivate an array of political allies: in the case of Hollande, this means keeping the Left of his party as well as his Green allies happy with a number of symbolic measures, from the supertax to the recent anti-fracking bill.

Uninterested in the impact of morale and image on politics and the economy, Hollande believes that the economic cycle is bound to turn (he has said several times already that the recession is behind us), and that all he’s got to do is stay in power until things get better – thanks to the Chinese, the Americans, it hardly matters which. He doesn’t even worry about Marine Le Pen’s inroads in local elections: a junior aide in the Mitterrand Élysée 25 years ago, he believes the National Front, conjured up by his old boss, is a convenient accessory designed to split the Right and help him win a second term in 2017.

Professor Régniez believes this is very dangerous. “Sarkozy narrowly lost in 2012 for personal reasons – his style annoyed voters who could have agreed on his policies, but who wanted to punish him: 18 per cent of them voted for Marine Le Pen, against only 5 per cent for her father in 2007.

“This should be a warning to other countries, like Britain – it’s all very well punishing a conservative politician you’re dissatisfied with by voting for a maverick, Le Pen here, Farage there. But it gets the likes of Hollande elected. Think well: is ours the kind of future you want for your country?”

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

A corner of Paris that will remain forever seedy

A native Parisienne, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet laments the loss of charm of her old quartier 

Jacques Chirac can be blamed for the 1994 'beautification' of the Champs, when he blew a fortune on widening pavements, buying designer benches and allowing the cafés to expand
Jacques Chirac can be blamed for the 1994 'beautification' of the Champs, when he blew a fortune on widening pavements, buying designer benches and allowing the cafés to expand Photo: Bloomberg
With its garish shops, escort-girl bars, uncouth and drunk visitors, it is crowded, stressful, overpriced – and shunned by the French themselves. No, this isn’t the description of a nastier corner of a banlieue, but rather Hugh Schofield on Paris’s best-known avenue, the Champs-Élysées. And the French are already furious. 

As a native Parisienne, born exactly 160 yards from the Champs-Élysées, who still lives round the corner, I have mixed feelings about the place. I know the crowds, because I hear their drunken arguments under my windows late at night. And it’s true that the avenue has little more to offer today than chain stores – H&M, Zara, Adidas, Nike – a few cinemas, and overpriced cafés where no Parisian would ever set foot.

True to the BBC’s default position, its Paris correspondent blames Jacques Chirac’s long tenure as mayor for the change; but he’s wrong. What changed everything was the opening of the RER train station at the Arc de Triomphe in 1973, four years before Chirac’s election. Today between 300,000 and half a million people descend every weekend.

True, Chirac can be blamed for the 1994 “beautification” of the Champs, when he blew a fortune on widening pavements, buying designer benches and allowing the cafés to expand. This brought even more people to the area, drove the rents sky-high, and completed the end of an era.

This used to be my quartier, a strange ecosystem of elegance and old-style seediness which had its own charm. I remember, aged 10 and on my way to the dentist, catching a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich walking along in full make-up, couture, gloves, and a little hat with a veil, not far from the Travellers Club (which is still there, barely, in the old palazzo built for the great Second Empire cocotte, La Païva). Metres away, the side street, Rue de Ponthieu, so offensive today, was then a row of louche bars with girls and hoodlums: indeed, several Jean Gabin and Alain Delon movies are set there.
In the post-war years, the Champs-Élysées were pure movieland. Darryl Zanuck was ensconced in the Hotel George V with his lover Juliette Gréco, from where he produced films such as The Longest Day, thanks to the Marshall Plan subsidies for European-American co-productions. Every major studio had an office on the Champs (Paramount was at No 33), and the French and American film crowd met at Le Fouquet’s long before the man who redefined it in 2007 with his infamous election party – Nicolas Sarkozy – was even born. But in 1975 the Marshall Plan ended, and everyone left, along with the money and the incentive.

Today, there’s a McDonald’s where the art bookshop used to be. The bullet holes from the August 1944 fighting have been filled in on the walls. The Hôtel de Crillon, recently bought by the Saudi royal family, was the last to sport its marks proudly, like duelling scars. It is now being refurbished.

As a child, I rode the Shetland ponies and went to the Guignol puppet show in the gardens near the Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées; shopped for records at Sinfonia at No 68 and went to see old movie revivals at the Cinéac Élysées, where you can now find only a row of garish clothes shops with pop music blaring out on to the street.

Sadly, I bear some responsibility for the destruction. Back in 1932, my great-uncle Léonard started the rot when he had the first commercial building ever built on the Champs-Élysées, at No 116. It was a daring piece of Cubist architecture by an associate of Le Corbusier, the facade zig-zagging at straight angles: it created a scandal in its time, and for generations was a matter of pride in the family. No longer.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hands off our baguettes, you half-baked Anglo-Saxons

The truth is that baguettes are like wine: all differ depending on the baker, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
The dreaded Anglo-Saxons are French-bashing again – and this time, they’re after our very bread. Stirred from their mid-August torpor, Libération and Le Figaro are shocked, shocked that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and even, I’m ashamed to say, The Daily Telegraph have mistaken a perfectly reasonable campaign to encourage people to keep buying bread, of the kind that the Milk Marketing Board puts on for dairy products at regular intervals, for an admission of nothing less than the death of the proper French baguette. Cue a denunciation of the “deplorable trend in the Anglo-Saxon media to disparage France on just any old pretext”, which “seems to have intensified in recent months”.

The charges are these. French people buy far less bread than 50 years ago, because they’re richer and more diet-conscious. Even when they do, they have the gall to fork out for the wrong kind. These Anglo-Saxon “experts” tell us that une baguette pas trop cuite – as I regularly request from my excellent bakery on rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré – is in fact a travesty of what your proper crusty baguette should be like. It’s not been baked enough. It’s white, doughy, soggy, tasteless. It is, as Monty Python would say, an ex-baguette.

To which I answer: “Piffle!” The truth is that baguettes are like wine: all differ depending on the baker. You patronise the one whose product you like best. And the sheer gall of trying to compare any kind of French baguette – not least the heavenly petits pains served in Michelin-rosetted restaurants such as Ducasse or Arpège – to the terrifying, sickly hued, sugared-up, watered-down, plastic-wrapped, rubber-like objects that pass for bread in Britain or America makes my temper rise like Poilâne sourdough.

Even the figures implying an inexorable decline in the baguette consumption are as cherrypicked as a political party broadcast’s. Yes, the number of bakeries has gone down from 54,000 in 1950 to 32,000 today. But the number of bakers has risen slightly, to 160,000. This isn’t attrition: it’s consolidation.
I know this because of a recent report by the French senate on l’industrie boulangère. It exists because the state of our bread is a national matter, and has been for a very long time. We French apply to breadmaking the perfectionism the Japanese put into cars.
From the first price controls and regulations as to what constitutes lawful bread – passed under Charlemagne at the very beginning of the ninth century – to the bread shortages that sparked the French Revolution, “bread” in our wheat-growing country has really meant “food”. That’s why it was so devastating when Marie-Antoinette was falsely accused of quipping: “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake.” When the king and his family were forced from Versailles to Paris in July 1789, the mob’s joyous cry was: “We have brought back the baker, his wife and the baker’s boy.”

For a millennium, the price of bread was decreed by law – one only lifted in 1978. The Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française is happy to tell you that a day’s work at the minimum wage will enable you to buy 65 baguettes today, as opposed to 10 in 1950. (In 1800, it got you 16: Napoleon wanted to keep the price low.)

To this day, Parisian bakeries, like pharmacies, are obliged to keep to a holiday rota, so that even in the midst of August, at least one stays open per quartier (one fourth of an arrondissement). Bread is still seen as a vital staple, necessary if not to survival, then at least to the French way of life. And its quality, if anything, has risen, with regular competitions such as Best Baguette in Paris, won this year by the Tunisian-born patron of a Montparnasse bakery. We’re not expecting to crown an American or Brit any time soon.
I wonder why that is?

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

France prefers subsidy to égalité

Competition is a dirty word in France. It threatens the privileges of state employees, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Do French unions have too much power? Anne-Elisabeth Moutet debates on F24.

As the French rail strike followed the French air traffic controllers’ work stoppages last week, and tens of thousands of passengers and commuters saw their plans disrupted, it became a point of perverse pride for French commentators to deny that anything was very much amiss. The government, we were told, wasn’t really unhappy with the popular message being sent to Brussels, whether on the Single Sky Initiative, or the (very slow) opening of the French railways to free competition. In fact, it was felt at the Élysée that François Hollande, a man who doesn’t come equipped with a handbag, would only find his negotiating stance against too-fast reforms strengthened by this visible expression of national hostility.

British public opinion sees the EU as a source of Byzantine regulations hampering free trade. A large cross-section of the French are incensed by what they see as the European Commission’s Anglo-Saxon-tainted liberal economists and free-marketeers attacking the myriad privileges and protections that make the life of those happy enough to benefit from them so comfortable.

Competition is often a dirty word in France: never more than when it threatens to disrupt “avantages acquis” (acquired advantages), the gold-plated benefits a group of (usually) public employees has managed to have enshrined in contractual agreements. For years, among the various bonuses that can double an SNCF railwayman’s salary, was a “prime de charbon” (coal allowance), finally cancelled long after the last steam engine was retired. Pension age starts at 50 (soon 52) for train drivers and 55 for most other personnel.

Similarly, the 300,000 employees of EDF, the nominally privatised national electricity utility (the French State still owns 85 per cent of its equity) enjoy subsidised meals, holidays, cultural events, housing, as well as huge discounts on their power bills, lifetime employment, and early retirement provided for by a pension fund separate from the cash-strapped national system. Most of these perks are managed in-house by a committee dominated by CGT, the Communist union, on a €500 million budget funded by a statutory 1 per cent contribution of the company’s turnover. As a result, EDF, a multinational corporation of recognised excellence, turns only nominal profits compared with its competitors.

It hurts to lose these benefits, which explains why the French public sector strikes so often and so fiercely. The paradox is that apart from the quarter of the French workforce employed by the bloated French state, almost no one else in France belongs to a union – only 7 per cent of the 22.3 million-strong workforce do. Yet because the role of the unions is enshrined in French labour laws, the country’s main union representatives are party to all government negotiations on social reform – with predictably intransigent results.

Since 1979, when Giscard d’Estaing’s then PM, Raymond Barre, a no-nonsense professor of economics, tried to go blood, sweat and tears on the French after the second oil crunch, and lost, the mantra in Paris has been negotiation, negotiation, negotiation. Less than two years later, Ronald Reagan broke a lockdown with striking American air-traffic controllers by firing every one of them, and replacing them by requisitioning their military counterparts. The French still haven’t recovered from such a terrifying spectacle. The only prime minister to try to hold firm against a public service general strike, Alain Juppé, had to cave in ignominiously after two months in 1995, and his boss Jacques Chirac lost a general election just 18 months later. In short, courage doesn’t pay in France.

Needless to say, François Hollande doesn’t want to consider such extremes. For one thing, all this week’s strikers are his natural constituents: the last group of socialist voters in France are government employees. Teachers will, in all likelihood, stay with him, but train or air-traffic workers could succumb to Marine Le Pen and her populist, anti-Brussels, anti-“international finance” stance –or the increasingly similar-sounding Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the extreme-Left leader.

France’s socialists have had no New Labour conversion in which they officially renounced Marxist ideology. Hollande declares himself to be a social democrat in private, or abroad; but denies it frantically in public. As a result, a strange parody of class war will continue here for the foreseeable future, defending privileges instead of fighting them, led by unions representing little more than their own apparatchiks.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Like her French, Camilla's visit was 'formidable'

The Duchess truly charmed us on her first solo trip abroad, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (R) listens to explanations by a Louvre staff member as she visits the Louvre Museum on May 28, 2013 in Paris
A member of staff shows the Duchess of Cornwall around the Louvre Museum Photo: AFP/GETTY
There was something delightfully pre-celebrity about the Duchess of Cornwall’s visit to Paris last week. For one thing, most of us knew nothing about it. Nice middle-aged English lady takes train; goes to charity shop; has a slice or two of saucisson in the Boulevard Raspail street market; nips into Dior to be shown fairy-tale size-zero dresses into which neither she nor any of her entourage has a hope of fitting; takes in the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; looks at horses; and rounds up proceedings with a drinks do at the British Embassy and a cosy dinner with friends. This is firmly Don’t Tell Alfred territory, belonging in those earlier times when France was a kind of sunny hinterland for Mitford sisters of the not-enough-married (Nancy) or too-married (Diana, Lady Mosley) variety.

Non-Royal reporters here in France (that’s everyone except Paris Match and Gala) remained in blissful oblivion of this event: the first solo visit by the future British Queen abroad. Camilla – we call her just “Camilla”, just as France Soir in its 1960s heyday chronicled the ups and downs of “Tony et Margaret” (Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret) – hopped off her Eurostar at Gare du Nord with very little fracas, and with her pared-down entourage, went largely unremarked in the streets until she was called upon to perform.

She sent off a bike expedition for Help for Heroes from the grand courtyard of the Invalides, and made a short speech in excellent but accented French at the Communauté d’Emmaüs at Bougival, West Paris. Like her mother-in-law, although perhaps more approachably, she showed perfect, smiling courtesy throughout. But you could tell she really felt in her element with the Garde Républicaine horses, their riders, even their farriers. (How many Gardes Républicains does it take to shoe a horse? Three – one to hold the horse, one to hammer the red-hot shoe, one to speak to Camilla, carefully omitting that Napoleon is buried next door.)

The visit couldn’t have been better calibrated to French sensibilities. Emmaüs UK, the charity of which the Duchess is a patron, is a 1990s-created offshoot of perhaps France’s best-loved movement, founded in the immediate post-war years by a Catholic priest and former Resistance member from Lyon, Abbé Pierre, who relinquished his MP seat to take up the defence of the homeless in a country still scarred by the war and under rationing edicts. Until his death in 2007, Abbé Pierre regularly polled at the top of a list of France’s most-liked personalities. Emmaüs, which concentrates on giving the destitute a place to live and to work, is a kind of French Oxfam, with low overheads: no glittering fundraisers or expensive headquarters.

As the Duchess visited one of the Emmaüs thrift shops, the British ambassador, Sir Peter Ricketts, made a point of buying her a pretty, rectangular Cartier-lookalike watch, a snip at 10 euros. This was no Chinese fake, but bore the name of the defunct Lip watchmakers, France’s only would-be workers’ commune back in the 1970s. If intended, this was an elegant historical reference and a dream diplomatic gesture, appreciated by anyone in François Hollande’s Socialist government: a Lip watch bought at Emmaüs is worth 10,000 social- conscience cred points.

In short, in terms of easing the Duchess into her next big part, you could say the visit was a real low-key success. The French, like the rest of the world, had happily gone Diana-mad in the 1980s and 1990s. Following Charles and Diana’s state visit to Paris for this newspaper in 1988, I well recall the crowds, the press photographers in their dozens, the breathless segments opening the evening news. We got Diana at the Elysée with François Mitterrand, and Diana at the Hôtel de Ville with Mayor Chirac (a presidential hopeful at the time, he was very keen on the reflected glamour), and the reception at Versailles with former president Giscard d’Estaing (who would much later write a rather silly self-insertion roman à clef in which he had an affair with the princess). It was all about the bling.

Last week’s Paris trip was pretty much the exact opposite of that (no novels in the offing, I suspect), so much in fact that no one even thought of bringing up comparisons. Characteristically, when she posed in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the Duchess made sure that she wasn’t obscuring Leonardo’s picture on the photographs (“Can’t have that!”) – this wasn’t going to be a Taj Mahal photo-op.

When Sidney Toledano, the CEO of Dior – and the man who personally fired the most famous Briton in French fashion, John Galliano, two years ago – showed Camilla around the present-day ateliers and the New Look frocks of the Dior museum, nobody mentioned that Dior had named a handbag after Diana (her ubiquitous Lady D quilted bag). Instead, everyone made much of the Duchess’s charming second-hand raffia clutch, a novelty item with no pretensions to It-ness, embroidered with the word “Paris”.

Nor did French fashion writers make anything of her Anna Valentine outfits – although the online comments sections weren’t always as charitable: a floaty printed dress worn with a sharply-tailored mustard jacket passed muster; so did a classic Burberry trenchcoat; the dowdyish coat-dresses (“housecoats!”) didn’t.

This didn’t matter. In today’s depressed climate, France is nursing what feels like the mother of all Eurozone hangovers: right now, the nation can take neither overbearing First Girlfriends with a waspish line in tweets, nor size-zero princesses in 5in nude heels and look-at-me clothes. The French are notorious for being coldly, elegantly uncomfortable, but right now they are atypically amenable to a bit of cosiness – and Camilla looked cosy all right, especially as she didn’t really need a refashioned image in the first place.

We are tolerant of affaires de coeur. We never really held Charles’s infidelity against him to begin with. In fact, one of Gérard Depardieu’s best movies, Bertrand Blier’s award-winning Trop Belle Pour Toi (1989), described a rather similar set-up, with the Depardieu character neglecting his high-maintenance, beautiful wife, the former Bond girl Carole Bouquet, for the homely but warm Josiane Balasko. We gave it a slew of Césars (the French Oscars) and the Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes.

With no monarchy in our own country, the French like kings and queens abroad. And while we require a great deal of majesty from our presidents – the Fifth Republic, after all, was tailored to Charles de Gaulle’s specifications; it’s one of François Hollande’s many political mistakes that he described himself as the “normal” president – we prefer, all things considered, the more relaxed type in neighbouring nations.

The one reigning French citizen is the Prince Consort of Denmark, Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, husband to Queen Margrethe, and for years the Danish royal couple have spent family holidays in South-West France with minimum fuss. The French see the Queen herself as a grandmother and an animal lover (yes, we do like animals: one of the longest-running television programmes here is a much-loved show on pets called 30 Millions d’Amis), as well as a kind of monument. An extraordinary constant over the years.

On present form, Camilla seems well placed to ease herself, almost by stealth, into solid monumenthood.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mr Normal has become the Pitiful President

One year in, François Hollande has alienated most voters, antagonised Angela Merkel, driven droves of French into exile and presided over a worsening economy. Anne-Elisabeth Moutet reports.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet debates the Cahuzac scandal rocking the Hollande presidency.

With hindsight, it seems as if François Hollande’s troubles started the day he was inaugurated, on May 15 2012. First he was drenched by a surprise storm as his open Citroën drove up the Champs-Elysées. Then, the very same day, his Falcon plane was hit by lightning on the way to Berlin, where he was scheduled to meet Angela Merkel – making it possibly the first and last time the German Chancellor has felt unreserved sympathy for him.

The new president had to turn back before travelling to Berlin in another aircraft. When he got there – in more pouring rain – he missed a turn on the airfield red carpet while reviewing German troops, and had to be steered back in the right direction by Mrs Merkel’s firm grip on his elbow, a moment that presciently symbolised their future relationship.

And everything went downhill from there.

One year later, the man who had billed himself as the “normal president” during his victorious campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy is breaking records for unpopularity. With 75 per cent against him, Hollande is scoring the lowest approval ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic since the country started conducting polls. Unemployment has risen by 11.5 per cent since his election, reaching an all-time high of 3.2 million. An estimated 150,000 young people have left the country in search of better prospects abroad: the only jobs created in France have been in the public sector, usually in fields such as teaching that are solidly controlled by Socialist voters.

Despite a widely touted “austerity” drive, public spending stands at 57 per cent of GDP – the figure in Britain is 45 per cent – and the country’s public debt is about to reach 94 per cent of GDP. The largest street demonstrations since 1984 – when the country also had a Socialist president, François Mitterrand – have brought more than a million people on to the streets of Paris on two occasions (and more are planned), to protest against justice minister Christiane Taubira’s new law on gay marriage and adoption: given that France is a fairly tolerant society, these were effectively a street referendum against Hollande.

France’s very visible spat with Germany is a good example of how Hollande manages to make a bad situation worse. It is hardly new for French and German governments to disagree on economic issues; nor is it unusual that its leaders belong to different political parties. Yet, mindful of the European leverage afforded by the French-German axis, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a conservative, was excellent friends with the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt, while the Socialist Mitterrand spoke in almost Gaullian terms of his German counterpart, the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl. Even Jacques Chirac never clashed with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the way he did (as PM) with Margaret Thatcher.

Hollande, however, still seems to manage France the way he managed rival “currents” during his long tenure as Socialist Party leader, trying to play one against the other while trying to keep everyone happy by granting them some sort of concession. This was in evidence at last year’s European summit, where instead of sitting down with Mrs Merkel to hammer out a viable compromise, he tried to rustle up an alliance with Spain and Italy behind her back, thinking this would be enough to counter the German position.

“This may work in Corrèze [Hollande’s constituency in central France]; it doesn’t in the real world,” a French diplomat commented at the time. “At the end of the day, the Germans were annoyed, the French line was all but absent from the final communiqué – and Mrs Merkel and David Cameron found themselves in closer alliance than they’d ever been.”

Recently, a trio of ministers including the flamboyant Arnaud Montebourg, minister for industrial recovery, started making increasingly belligerent statements about “German-imposed austerity”, accusing Mrs Merkel of “egotistical intransigence” and calling for “a democratic confrontation with Germany”, without being taken to task by the president.
It didn’t take long for Mrs Merkel’s entourage, who are much savvier in the ways of French politics than the French are about Berlin affairs, to counterleak a memo – plausibly produced by the Chancellor’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats – on France being “Europe’s biggest problem child”, with a stalled economy and a “meandering” reform programme. Mrs Merkel then gave a perfunctory denial that she thought anything of the kind.

The truth is that she is incensed with Hollande, not least because of her growing conviction that the French president and his spin doctors allowed the German-bashing because they felt that it would displace domestic dissatisfaction with Hollande on to Germany.

Even the notoriously complacent French press is now giving the president a hard time. “Is 'GrandPa’ [one of Hollande’s mildest nicknames] really up to it?” asked the news magazine L’Express on a recent cover. Le Point called him “Monsieur Faible” – Mr Weak – after Hollande confessed that he hadn’t believed the economic crisis would “last so long”.

No relief was to be expected after the announcement yesterday that Arnaud Montebourg had scuppered a deal by which Yahoo had agreed to acquire 75 per cent of Dailymotion, a successful French internet video site, valuing it at $300 million. “Yahoo wants to devour Dailymotion, but we told them no and that it had to be a 50:50 split,” the avowedly anti-American Montebourg boasted to Europe 1 radio. Whereupon Yahoo called the whole thing off.

Similar grandstanding by Montebourg had already driven the Indian tycoon Lakshmi Mittal from the Florange steelworks in Lorraine, and the American company Titan International from a floundering Goodyear tyre plant in northern France.

“The country is drowning in an ocean of discouragement,” said Christophe Barbier, the influential editor of L’Express. “It’s not just the tax-avoiding rich, artists like Gérard Depardieu, businessmen – everyone is now tempted to leave for a better life elsewhere. Young people feel they will never get a break, a job, a sign of trust. Entrepreneurs have to fend off red tape, rising costs and levies.”

In April, to add to this toxic climate, came the Cahuzac scandal: France’s budget minister, the man in charge of fighting tax fraud, was revealed to have a secret bank account in Switzerland – and in all likelihood another in Singapore – and to have lied to the president and parliament about it.

In the past week, polls have given Marine Le Pen, the far-Right National Front leader, record numbers in a hypothetical presidential election – 23 per cent, well above Hollande at 19 per cent, while Sarkozy scored 34 per cent. Were Sarkozy to stand, he would beat Le Pen easily in the second round but the talk in France has been of the dangers of Fascism, beginning with the very real distrust of all politicians and of the ruling class.

It says a lot about Hollande’s tin ear that he chose that very moment to compel ministers to disclose their personal assets, arguing for the virtues of “transparency” against corruption. This may work in the United States, where personal success is admired: but in France, a country where unregenerated Marxist thought still largely holds sway, overlaying a centuries-old Catholic mistrust of money, it prompted Claude Bartolone, the Socialist Speaker of the National Assembly, who is fighting suggestions of a similar obligation for MPs, to talk of “voyeurism and envy”.

Embattled in the Élysée Palace, where at times it seems his only remaining supporter is his partner Valérie Trierweiler – a woman so unpopular that Hollande has to fend off unpleasant remarks about her during his rare walkabouts – the president is now mulling a cabinet reshuffle as a way of signalling to the French that he has taken their displeasure on board.

But whom to choose to replace his weak prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former German language teacher? The 2007 Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, is unacceptable to Mme Trierweiler. The former Socialist leader Martine Aubry, Jacques Delors’s daughter and the artisan of the rigid 35-hour working week, may be unacceptable to Mrs Merkel. François Mitterrand’s former PM, Laurent Fabius, now the foreign minister, is hampered by having just been revealed to be the richest man in the Cabinet.
Hollande’s instinct is probably to try to trundle along with the same tired team. His latest attempt to show that the presidency is doing its part to relieve the public debt has been to announce that he will sell part of its cellar of fine wines, lovingly accrued since the Vincent Auriol presidency in 1947.

On May 30 and 31, 2,200-euro bottles of 1990 Pétrus and Château d’Yquem will be auctioned off, “to be replaced by more modest vintages”, according to the president. So speaks a self-proclaimed modest man, who may be feeling that he has a lot to be modest about.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013